Mark Silverman: The calm after the storm
Mark Silverman is one of the most influential sports media executives that you probably don’t know.
The Fox Sports president of national networks has an outsized influence on the Fox lot, charting the future for a sports division that has become much more important for the new, leaner Fox network. He’s been on the job for 16 months but still doesn’t have a big public profile outside of Fox, which is the way he likes it.
The well-liked executive doesn’t have a flashy style. He doesn’t have a flashy role. He is comfortable staying behind the scenes.
“It really has been for me the perfect scenario, because I haven’t had a partner that actually was that kind of broad-based executive before,” said Silverman’s boss, Eric Shanks, Fox Sports CEO and executive producer. “You don’t see it on the outside. Things are running internally so much better.”
21st Century Fox sold its entertainment assets and regional sports networks to Disney for $71.3 billion — a deal that closed in March. That deal has resulted in “New Fox” — the name insiders use for the broadcast network after the deal — putting a much bigger focus on sports programming. In the fall, its prime-time lineup will have the NFL on Thursdays, WWE on Fridays and college football on Saturdays.
This focus on live prime-time programming gave Shanks a bigger role where he needed someone to manage the business day-to-day. That’s where Silverman comes in, filling in roles from maintaining relationships with league partners and dealing with talent and producers to staying on top of budgets and green-lighting shows.
“Part of my role is behind the scenes,” Silverman said. “I’m trying to bring focus and identify priorities. I’m trying to bring it all together and push in the right direction for the Fox Sports brand.”
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To understand what Silverman has brought to Fox Sports since he joined the company in January 2018, it’s important to look at where Fox was before he came on board.
The pre-Silverman Fox Sports essentially was split into two factions — an old guard that closely identified with the broadcast network and a new group, led by Fox Sports National Networks President Jamie Horowitz, that identified with FS1, according to multiple sources.
The Silverman file
Michigan, MBA; UCLA, B.A., economics
Fox Sports, president of national networks, January 2018-present
Big Ten Network, president, December 2006-December 2017
ABC Cable Networks Group, senior VP/GM, July 2004-November 2006
ABC Family Channel, senior VP/GM, July 2003-July 2004
Under Horowitz’s direction, FS1 brought on controversial, headline-grabbing talent for its studio shows — hosts including Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd — and looked to scuffle with anyone that came into its orbit.
The public got a glimpse of those competing factions in the summer of 2016, soon after FS1 hired Bayless to launch a morning studio show. Bayless had a long-running feud with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, Fox’s top NFL analyst and one of the most influential people at the broadcast network.
Aikman took the extraordinary step of publicly slamming the decision, calling out Horowitz by name. Aikman told Sports Illustrated at the time, “Clearly Jamie Horowitz and I have a difference of opinion when it comes to building a successful organization. I believe success is achieved by acquiring and developing talented, respected and credible individuals, none of which applies to Skip Bayless.”
It’s not unusual for broadcast and cable channels to have different cultures. The ABC and ESPN cultures did not mesh for decades even though the two networks have shared the same owner since 1985. It was a similar story with NBC after Comcast bought it in 2011.
When Horowitz left Fox in July 2017, fired amid sexual harassment allegations, Shanks looked to bring in someone who could get all sides of Fox Sports working together.
He settled on Silverman, an executive who had been on Shanks’ radar for years. Silverman spent the previous 11 years running Big Ten Network from Chicago. Fox Sports owns 51 percent of the channel, with the Big Ten Conference holding a 49 percent stake. Shanks said he tried to convince Silverman to move to Los Angeles in 2013 when FS1 launched.
“At the time, he felt like he had some unfinished business at the Big Ten,” Shanks said. “This ended up being even a more perfect time to come into this position than it was four or five years earlier.”
Almost as soon as he joined, Silverman got to work on unifying the Fox Sports brand and getting the broadcast and cable factions to work as one team.
First, he had to win over executives and talent hired by Horowitz and believed to be loyal to the former executive. Charlie Dixon was one of those executives, having been hired by Horowitz in July 2015 to be executive vice president of content.
Dixon recalled his first meeting with Silverman shortly after the former BTN president joined Fox. Dixon was preparing a presentation for Silverman that would demonstrate how the studio shows were conceived and how they were expected to evolve.
Before he could finish preparing the presentation, Silverman popped in to Dixon’s office and had an informal chat about the business.
“He walked into my office, totally casually, picked up my baseball bat and said, ‘What do you want to do here,’” Dixon said. “It was totally disarming, frankly. I wasn’t expecting that.”
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In early April, Silverman had a prime speaking slot at the World Congress of Sports, an annual conference organized by Sports Business Journal that attracts top business executives. Before his on-stage interview, Silverman amiably chatted with various sports executives in the green room. After his talk, he bantered with league executives and consultants.
Part of that attention comes from Silverman’s new role — people will line up to kiss the ring of a president at Fox Sports. But the way he effortlessly moved from one conversation to another also comes from Silverman’s easygoing style that has won him fans and loyalty during his career.
One of his biggest supporters is Jim Delany, the longtime Big Ten commissioner who hired Silverman in late 2006 to launch Big Ten Network the following year. While interviewing Silverman for the job, Delany asked him to describe in a few words how he wanted the network to be perceived.
Silverman responded, “I really only need one word. I want it to be smart.”
“He grasped in an effective way, with just one word, what we wanted, and he appealed to some of the people that were making that decision,” Delany said. “Mark’s very smart and incisive. He understood the joint venture immediately.”
Delany, who is retiring in 2020, has a reputation as someone who has a tight and loyal inner circle. It takes a while for someone to earn his trust and loyalty. Silverman almost immediately earned Delany’s trust, as the two executives spent days crisscrossing Big Ten markets to exert pressure on Comcast and Time Warner Cable for carriage. They developed a strong bond that continues today — they still talk regularly.
“Mark and I hit it off from the beginning,” Delany said. “I attribute that to his personal characteristics. He’s a smart guy, high-energy guy, collegial guy, he’s an experienced guy, well-educated guy.”
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Silverman’s role extends beyond simply trying to unify the Fox Sports brand.
When asked to describe how Silverman conducts business, one of Fox’s newest partners, WWE co-president Michelle Wilson, recalled a meeting before their deal was finalized when executives were trying to figure out the logistics around moving “SmackDown” from Tuesday night to Friday night starting this fall.
“Mark started talking about what else can we do — a studio show? Other content? Cross-promote with other Fox Sports properties?” Wilson said. “He saw the much bigger picture. When somebody starts talking about those types of things, I’m impressed by that. He saw the long-term strategic value of a partnership with WWE, and that was really impressive to me.”
It’s hard to find people who dislike Silverman — he has a lot of friends and engenders a lot of loyalty. That does not mean he shies away from making hard decisions. In January, for example, he reorganized the Fox Sports production department, promoting Brad Zager to oversee the production and operations departments — a move that left production president John Entz without a role at Fox.
Silverman is not scared of taking chances, as seen by his announcement in March to hire Urban Meyer and Reggie Bush for a college football pregame show that he hopes will compete with ESPN’s “College GameDay.”
The scope of Silverman’s influence is vast. He still oversees studio programming on FS1 and, notably, has not made significant changes to the lineup in the 16 months that he’s been on board.
“This stuff is working,” he said. “For whatever reason, the media didn’t seem to like this direction, but if you watch it, you’ll like it. I don’t really use the phrase ‘debate shows.’ It’s sports programming that’s not highlight driven. They’re talent driven. Skip and Colin have big audiences that like watching them.”
Perhaps most importantly, Silverman has earned Shanks’ trust to the point where he fills in for the Fox Sports CEO for important meetings. Take last summer, for example, when Shanks spent a lot of time in Russia where Fox was producing the World Cup. Silverman stayed stateside at the MLB All-Star Game and golf’s U.S. Open.
It’s a system the two executives call “divide and conquer.”
“We divide up and we have the right people in the right place to make sure that we’re respecting our partners and getting the creative work done,” he said. “We weren’t able to do that before.”